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  • Writer's pictureWilma Aalbers

Books that Remind You to Appreciate Your Ordinary Childhood

Updated: Jun 5, 2023

Jennette McCurdy, I’m Glad My Mom Died

For anyone reading this who was born before the year 2000: Jennette McCurdy starred as Sam Puckett (Carly’s bff) in the show iCarly from 2007-2012.

When Jennette McCurdy was very young, her mother Debra decided that she would be a Hollywood star, and proceeded to dedicate all her time to ensuring her daughter achieved this goal. Never mind that Jenette never really had an investment in this dream, or that achieving stardom came at a great personal cost.

Raised in a Mormon household in Garden City, California, Jennette’s world was very small for a long time. She and her siblings were home-schooled, which meant there was little opportunity to socialize with children their age. Even though Jennette was attending auditions and working regularly from the age of 8, the competitive nature of these experiences meant that she was unable to form relationships with any other children she met at auditions or on sets. Debra’s explosively controlling personality ruled their house, so even close family members who might have been concerned about Jennette were terrified of interfering.

Debra’s abuse is shocking. She “showers” Jennette until Jennette is sixteen, “checking” her daughter’s breasts and vagina for signs of illness. Debra explains this is necessary because she has a history of breast cancer and wants to ensure Jennette does not have tumors or growths. She restricts Jennette’s food intake to stave off puberty so her daughter can continue to get roles for children. She manages every moment of her daughter’s existence, all the while ensuring the outward appearance of their family is one of faithful togetherness. Finally, Jennette’s ultimate success as an actor financially supports her family for many years.

The effect of years of childhood trauma play out in Jennette’s early adulthood. She has extreme social anxiety and copes by drinking heavily. She is treated for bulimia, the long term outcome of years of what her mother called “calorie restriction.” And, having lived for so long under her mother’s control, Jennette is completely unable to connect or build intimate relationships with others. When she finally moves out on her own, Jennette is paralyzed by the sudden and terrifying combination of total isolation and newly acquired freedom. Her behaviour is, well, messy.

Only with years of therapy can Jennette honestly reflect on her mother’s actions and see them for what they are: traumatic abuse. Our perspective as readers seeing the story all at once makes it very easy to identify Debra is a manipulative narcissist, but Jennette’s experience is way more complicated. The McCurdy family absorbs and normalizes Debra’s behaviour over many years, unable to break free of its toxicity until Debra’s ultimate death of breast cancer in 2013. Jennette’s frankness in telling the story is genuinely affecting; she manages to relay even the most awful experiences with a journalist’s eye for detail and a surprising lack of bitterness.

It’s not easy to tell a story this difficult. McCurdy does it with unbelievable honesty and enough humour to leave you feeling hopeful at the end. It’s a marvel.

Sinead O’Connor, Rememberings

Not long after this book’s publication, O’Connor’s oldest son Shane went missing from Tallaght Hospital, where he was being held on a suicide watch. Two days later he was found dead by the police. Unfortunately, the event adds a tragic epilogue to what is already an intense story of struggle and success.

A thing that’s easy to forget about O’Connor is how young she was when her music career began. She was recording her first album at twenty when she discovered she was pregnant, and this, to me anyway, presents a profound and complicated impact on who she is artistically and personally. Ignoring advice from her record company that it’s unwise to tour while raising a child, (the subtext being, Don't have this child) O’Connor goes out on tour anyway, bringing the baby with her. As a result, she constructs her identity as both mother and performer simultaneously, in full public view. “How could I possibly know what I want when I was only twenty-one?” she asks in The Emperor’s New Clothes and these words resonate with extra poignancy from my reading perspective of 2023.

Early in the book, O’Connor shares that her life is cleanly divided by the moment in 1992 when she ripped up a picture of the pope while performing on Saturday Night Live. From the outside, this apparently career-ending move looked like a bizarre outburst or a mental break, but as O’Connor recalls it, “I just had stuff to get off my chest.” Audiences were shocked and appalled by her behaviour, and the fallout was, indeed, devastating. She describes multiple other controversial incidents that illustrate how the fame that gave her this platform for protest is the very thing that facilitated public condemnation of it. She became a public figure in a pre-Twitter world, but the way she was treated by the public was very much like a contemporary (or circa 2016 at least) Twitter pile-on.

Also, let’s remember that in addition to being a great time for music created by women, the nineties were also a golden age of music industry mansplaining and sexual harassment. O’Connor’s refusal to comply with the expectations placed on her by managers and producers reads as a very punk rock, feminist sensibility that is, to be clear, not a sign of mental illness but a completely sensible response to a sexist industry.

It is also true, though, that over the years O’Connor does indeed receive a number of different diagnoses of mental illness, including bipolar disorder, post traumatic stress disorder and agoraphobia.

Despite her claim not to remember much of the decades following 1992, O’Connor’s story is full of detailed anecdotes that reveal her persistent refusal to be the generic kind of female pop star record company executives believe she should be. Her story of being invited to Prince’s house is not just kind of nuts, but a cogent reminder of the fact that fame inhibits authentic human connection. Why Prince wanted to meet Sinead at all is not explained, and his general lack of interest in actually getting to know her makes him seem like a real douche. He insists that she eat soup with him, despite her polite refusals. Later he instigates a pillow fight. (WTAF Prince Rogers?) What I was most left thinking about after reading this part was how lonely these two weird geniuses were and how, despite that loneliness, there was simply no way for them to connect genuinely.

O’Connor’s narrative voice is honest and engaging, but there’s no mistaking the effect of years of trauma. Social media creates a public platform for her most provocative thoughts and feelings, which puts her in the limelight for very non-musical reasons. Particularly complicated is her relationship with Dr. Phil, who in 2018 offered to help by sending her to a rehab facility that would address her PTSD. She asserts that she really believed he was interested in helping her, but once his team dropped her off at the facility, he was no longer accessible and failed to follow up on the treatment or her progress. Further, the facility’s program re-traumatized her and ultimately led to no positive progress in her health.

Trauma and mental illness compromise memory, so I’m certain that Dr. Phil and O’Connor remember the incident differently. Still, there’s no denying her sense of betrayal and her disappointment in this person who instigated a relationship by reaching out to offer help.

I recently listened to an interview with Courtney Love on one of my favourite podcasts, and I committed to all two and a half hours of it which I now regret. Love is also known for being provocative, and for not playing the music industry game. But here’s the real T: Courtney Love’s annoying personality makes her a terrible interview subject. She’s a persistent digresser, name dropper, and humble bragger. I imagine if you sat down with Sinead O’Connor to chat, you might find the conversation similarly unwieldy, but I doubt it’d be annoying. O’Connor isn’t going to give you the answers you’re looking for, or the narrative you hoped for. She’s just going to tell you the messy goddamn truth, which is, I promise, one hundred percent worth your time.

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